The courtroom odyssey of a woman who became a focal point in the national debate on illegal immigration has finally ended.
Jessica Colotl, the Kennesaw State University graduate who was arrested and nearly deported over a traffic violation in 2010, is now free from a legal tangle that threatened to derail her aspirations to become a citizen and lawyer.
Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary E. Staley has dismissed a felony charge against Colotl, now 23, whose case sparked a a controversy about illegal immigrants attending public colleges. After months of withholding her approval, Staley consented Wednesday to the decision made by former District Attorney Pat Head not to prosecute Colotl.
Head had allowed Colotl to enter a pretrial diversion program in August 2011 and complete 150 hours of community service to avoid a felony conviction for false swearing. The false-swearing charge was brought by Cobb County deputies who said she lied about her address as she was being booked into jail for driving without a license.
Staley agreed to drop the charge because District Attorney Vic Reynolds, who took office Jan. 2, said he felt bound by his precedessor’s agreement with Colotl. Nevertheless, Staley made clear in the order that “both the Court and Sheriff Neil Warren do not believe that this case was appropriate for the Diversion Program.”
Colotl’s parents brought her from Mexico to the U.S. illegally when she was 11 years old. In March 2010, when she was a junior political science major at KSU, a campus police officer pulled her over for blocking the traffic flow in a campus parking lot. Her arrest for driving without a license brought her to the brink of deportation, but a public outcry from her sorority sisters, other students and KSU president Daniel Papp prompted her release.
She was granted a yearlong deportation deferment to finish her studies. Since graduating in the spring of 2011, she has benefited from several more deportation deferments that allowed her to stay in the country and work.
Sheriff Neil Warren issued a statement Thursday reiterating his view that Colotl “deserves no special consideration in the criminal justice process for decisions she made as an adult to violate the laws of this state.
“Unfortunately, newly elected District Attorney Vic Reynolds has inherited this case from his predecessor and is bound by decisions made prior to his taking office,” Warren’s statement continued. “I respect District Attorney Reynolds and look forward to working with him.”
Reynolds said he has already tweaked the guidelines for the pretrial diversion program so illegal immigrants will not be allowed to participate. He said he hasn’t let himself consider whether he would have handled the case differently if he had been the district attorney at the time, adding that he has “tremendous respect for Pat Head.”
Colotl’s case remains controversial in Cobb County and beyond. Her defense attorney, Jerome Lee, had accused Staley of bowing to political pressure from constituents when she refused to dismiss the case. He commended the judge Thursday for agreeing to drop the charge.
“Given the facts, there really wasn’t an option,” Lee said.
On the other end of the political spectrum, Dr. William Hudson, of the Conservative Leadership Coalition, said Colotl should not have been educated in the public university system since she’s an illegal immigrant, and she shouldn’t have been allowed to slide on the felony charge either.
“Somebody does something that’s illegal or a little bit shady and nobody’s holding their feet to the fire,” Hudson said. “People overseas are looking at us and saying these people are turning into a bunch of pantywaists.”
Reached by phone Thursday, Colotl said she is living in Gwinnett County and working as a legal assistant for her immigration attorney. She is also studying for the Law School Admission Test while preparing to apply to law school.
But she hasn’t escaped some degree of notoriety. She said people still come up to her and ask, “are you that KSU girl?” Now at least, she is free to focus on her future.
“Oh my God, I’ve been waiting for this for such a long time,” Colotl said. “Throughout the process it was emotionally draining. I’m just glad it’s over.”
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